Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

“The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed; so, in a way, there’s nothing to dread.”
~Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

Plot summary

“Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately.

All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.” More on Goodreads

On Margaret Atwood

“Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto.

Abandoned shoes. Photo: Carol VanHook (CC BY 2.0)
Abandoned shoes. Photo: Carol VanHook (CC BY 2.0)

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid’s Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood’s dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Desperate go kinky
  • Societal experiment
  • Twisted love
Review

Once upon time, there was a kinky pair. They got involved in some pretty big s**t, but they endured and potentially learned something new. And that might have been the end of them, or then again it might not.

Broken hearted. Photo: Lisa Zins (CC BY 2.0)
Broken hearted. Photo: Lisa Zins (CC BY 2.0)

Margaret Atwood has a unique style of writing, there is a hint of naiveté in her characters. As if the reader knows that the character in question is in some sense delusional of reality but tries to see the surrounding elements as more positively than necessary. This became evident in the MaddAddam series as well. In The Heart Goes Last, the society at large we get to have glimpses of, seems a far concept. One never really grasps the fundamental components of societal structures in the novel. There are only bits and pieces but the emotional turmoil and “interesting” choices of the main characters override the societal structure.

You make the dystopia you deserve. It’s the near future, and finance capitalism has pushed itself over the edge. The US is a rustbelt. Charmaine and Stan – we never learn their surname, which encourages a slightly patronising relationship with them – started out well: she worked for Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics; he was in quality control at Dimple Robotics. Now they live in their car, just two ordinary Americans down on their luck.” (Harrison 2015)

La Sheer (1968) - Allen Jones (1937). Belem, Berardo Collection, Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões (CC BY 2.0)
La Sheer (1968) – Allen Jones (1937). Belem, Berardo Collection, Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões (CC BY 2.0)

However, the economic crisis evident in the novel only seems to have affected certain portions and regions of the society in the near future United States. The big picture behind the dystopian structure remains hidden, we never know what kind of society we are dealing with. The level of anarchy is small but existing. Criminals and profiteers use very questionable ways to make a profit – be it children’s blood or sex robots of unimaginable capacities.

But believe me, the main couple is slightly twisted, especially Charmaine. She seems to have her head in the clouds and live in a sexual fantasy. She takes the life within Consilience as a version of The Stepford Wives (2004).

Consilience is a prison experiment of sorts. It is, however, not the prison experiment like at Stanford you were thinking, something else completely. The organizers advertise Positron as a perfect way to cut down costs and save in housing. Soon it becomes evident that this might only be the excuse given to the participants, since the underlying tensions suggest otherwise.

“Because citizens were always a bit like inmates and inmates were always a bit like citizens, so Consilience and Positron have only made it official.”
~Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

Atwood’s novels twist gender norms and power relations in an interesting way. It is great to perceive that at some level that Charmaine is more determinately described than Stan who appears to be a perfect tool and indeterminate in his actions. The interplay between human and sex robots is funny as well.

“That way nobody feels exploited.”
“Wait a minute,” says Stan. “Nobody’s exploited?”
“I said nobody feels exploited,” says Budge. “Different thing.”
~Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last is not my favorite Atwood novel but it is a refreshing outtake on the economic crisis and human desires irrespective of circumstances. The ending lets many outcomes possible. Decision making seems to be the overarching concept in the novel and the hardness of making decisions especially. In what scope are we able to make an influence to our lives and in what sense are decisions done for us, no matter of our opinion of the matter.

“You want your decisions taken away from you so you won’t be responsible for your own actions?”
~Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

Economic crisis. Photo: geralt (CC0 Public Domain)
Economic crisis. Photo: geralt (CC0 Public Domain)

Well, the road to happiness and understanding of oneself can be a rather bumpy and sometimes a very kinky one indeed.

Wishing you a splendid spring time, I hope you do not end up like Charmaine and Stan 🙂

Other novels and stories by Atwood
  • The Edible Woman (1969)
  • Surfacing (1972)
  • Dancing Girls (1977)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  • Cat’s Eye (1988)
  • The Robber Bride (1993)
  • Alias Grace (1996)
  • The Blind Assassin (2000)
  • MaddAddam series: Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013)
  • The Penelopiad (2005)
  • Moral Disorder and Other Stories (2006)
  • Positron series (2012-)

More information
– Anthony Cummins: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, review: ‘a curious hybrid’, published in The Telegraph on 30 September 2015, link retrieved on 19 April 2017
– M. John Harrison: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood review – rewardingly strange, published in the Guardian on 23 September 2015, link retrieved on 19 April 2017
– Mat Johnson: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Heart Goes Last’, published in The New York Times on 23 September 2015, link retrieved on 19 April 2017
– Doug Johnstone: The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood – book review: Travels in Dystopia, with Doris Day and Marilyn, published in Independent on 27 September 2015, link retrieved on 19 April 2017
– Sarah Lyall: Review: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Heart Goes Last’ Conjures a Kinky Dystopia, published in The New York Times on 29 September 2015, link retrieved on 19 April 2017
– Anita Sethi: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood review – visceral study of desperation, published in the Guardian on 14 August 2016, link retrieved on 19 April 2017
– Matt Wilstein: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Author Margaret Atwood Warns That Under Trump ‘This Might Actually Happen’, published in The Daily Beast on 26 April 2017, link retrieved on 2 May 2017

“She gives him an LED smile: light, but no heat.”
~Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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